There is a seemingly endless list of distributions to choose from if you’re interested in Linux. That said, one of the most popular distributions is Ubuntu. If you’ve heard of Linux, chances are you’ve heard of Ubuntu.
You may have heard that Ubuntu is based on another distribution, Debian. Which one should you choose? Is it a matter of preference, or is easy distribution better suited to different use cases?
What Are the Major Differences?
At first place, Ubuntu and Debian seem largely similar. Both use the same package management system and you’ll often find software packaged for both. Below the surface, however, there are some key differences to be aware of.
Not all software available for Ubuntu is available for Debian due to license restrictions in the latter. Debian has a much stronger stance on free software. This applies to firmware as well, so not all hardware that works with Ubuntu will work with Debian.
Ubuntu also has Personal Package Archives, commonly known as PPAs, available. These let you easily install packages not available in the official Ubuntu repositories. This makes installing a wider range of software much easier than it is on Debian. Our guide to PPA installation and security will help you out here.
The restrictions imposed by Debian aren’t as strict as those used by some other distributions, but it’s something to be aware of. Debian also has a different release cycle than Ubuntu. Both this and different license restrictions affect certain use cases, as we’ll see later on.
Debian vs. Ubuntu: Laptop Use
As you might have gathered from the above section, Ubuntu is often much easier to use on laptops than Ubuntu. Part of this comes down to the third-party firmware and software. Much of the hardware on newer laptops lacks open source drivers, meaning you’ll have to turn to non-free binaries.
Some non-free binaries are available in the Debian non-free repositories, but a wider range of hardware is more easily supported in Ubuntu. This combined with the software available in PPAs means you’ll have an easier time getting up and running with proprietary software in Ubuntu.
One of the main advantages of Linux is how customizable it is. This means that with a little work, you can get Debian running on a laptop as well as Ubuntu. That said, you’ll have to put in a bit more work to get to that point.
Finally, if you want to run Ubuntu on a laptop, you can simply buy a laptop running Ubuntu. It’s possible someone sells laptops pre-loaded with Debian, but you’ll find plenty of laptops preloaded with Ubuntu.
Debian vs. Ubuntu: Desktop Use
When it comes to desktop use, Debian is easier to use than it is on a laptop, especially if you choose your hardware carefully. If you’re building your own computer this is easy. If you’re dealing with a pre-built computer, maybe less so. Have an older computer? There’s a decent chance your hardware is supported.
When it comes to installation, you’ll generally have an easier time with Ubuntu. This isn’t necessarily a plus for every laptop user, but it is for many of them. Configuration is also easy in Ubuntu; how easy Debian is to configure will largely depend on your desktop.
The toughest time you’re going to have is with graphics cards. Nvidia offers drivers that will deliver decent performance for many of its cards. That said, if you want to use the open-source drivers you’ll have better luck with AMD cards.
If you’re looking to Linux alongside your Windows installation, you can dual boot either Debian or Ubuntu. That said, there are far more ways to run Ubuntu alongside Windows.
Debian vs. Ubuntu: Server Use
Debian doesn’t have a bespoke server download. Instead, it offers a minimal base installer. The main choice is to pick the image for your CPU architecture. Once you’ve installed the base system you install the software you need. From here you can choose server software or a more desktop-oriented installation.
In the case of Ubuntu, multiple installers are available. One is meant for desktop use, another is meant for server use. Still others are meant for other use cases. The server image is a relatively minimal install with no graphical interface and basic server software.
Debian is frequently used in server environments for a few reasons. One such reason is its reputation for stability. This is due to the relatively older packages it ships. These have been tested and verified, so they’re less likely to have bugs.
Ubuntu is still a good choice for server software, but it tends to use newer versions of software. This is a plus if you need features found in newer software versions, but it does mean that packages aren’t as time tested.
If you’re curious, we have a rundown of the key differences between the desktop and server versions of Ubuntu. Many of these apply to Debian as well.
Debian and Ubuntu vs. Other Distributions
What if you’re wondering about choosing Debian or Ubuntu instead of a distribution like Arch or Fedora? One of the key advantages of using either distribution is just how popular they are. If you’re looking for a tip for solving a problem, someone has likely encountered that problem on Ubuntu or Debian. This may not be true for other distributions.
This popularity helps when it comes to packages too. You’ll find DEB packages that run on Debian or Ubuntu for plenty of software. You may not find packages for other distributions. This is doubly true for Ubuntu, as its PPA system means you’ll find plenty of packaged software available.
Why Pick One?
For the most part, which distribution is best for you comes down to personal preference. Ubuntu is generally easier to use on the desktop while Debian is well-suited to server use. That said, you can easily use Debian on the desktop or Ubuntu on a server. As long as your hardware is supported, you can easily use either.
That said, there may be other reasons you may not want to use Ubuntu, or Debian for that matter. If you’re curious why you might opt for another distribution, we can fill you in on the details. Check our guide to the best Linux operating system distributions for more.